I am aware that this is bound to be an unpopular opinion, but please, hear me out. Please stop making your screaming babies sit on Santa’s lap. I know, I know. It’s the holidays and who doesn’t want a cute picture of their little one sitting on the big guy’s lap to commemorate this holiday season? I get it. It’s tradition. Everyone else is doing it. And what if you didn’t have any pictures of your child with Santa to show them when they’re all grown up? Here’s the thing, though… If your baby is screaming while you place him on Santa’s lap and slowly back away, is that really the kind of treasured holiday memory you want to have?
The other day I had to go to Walmart for some last-minute birthday supplies. While I was there, I noticed that there was an (actually, really authentic looking) Santa and Mrs. Clause taking photos with children. Parent after parent was lining up to place their little one on Santa’s lap quick enough to back away and snap a photo before the kiddo could launch him or herself off of Santa. I watched as parents smiled at their children, verbally reassuring them, “Mommy’s right here!” “Daddy’s here, honey, smile!” And the children were crying and screaming and reaching for their parents and sending every possible signal they could think of to communicate that they were afraid and uncomfortable with this scenario.
The key to building a healthy relationship with your baby is through consistently sensitive and responsive caregiving. This means that you strive to understand and interpret your baby’s non-verbal cues and provide caregiving that is consistent with the messages that your baby is communicating. When you force your baby to sit on Santa’s lap, despite her obvious protest, you are causing a mini-rupture in the relationship. In that moment, your child is sending a signal which clearly communicates that he or she is feeling afraid, and for the sake of a photo, you are intentionally ignoring those cues.
Is your child going to be permanently scarred for life because you forced them to sit on Santa’s lap as an infant? Probably not. Who knows. But I do know this, there are enough unintentional mini-ruptures in the course of the parent-child relationship on a daily basis that it just doesn’t seem worth it to me to add to that for the sake of a photo. When I see a photo of a crying baby sitting on Santa, I don’t think to myself, “How cute!” I think to myself, “Poor baby.” I am filled with empathy and compassion. Because I know that when I feel afraid, I like it when other people take that seriously and don’t diminish my feelings just because they don’t understand.
As an infant mental health specialist, it’s my job help parents understand their child’s subjective experiences. I help parents dig deep under the surface to learn what a child’s behavior communicates so that they will be able to to respond sensitively and appropriately. In this case, as the parent, you know that sitting on that mall Santa’s lap for a few seconds isn’t going to put your baby in any actual danger. But your baby doesn’t know that. What your baby does know is that her parent, her source of comfort and safety in this world, is handing her off to some big, scary-looking guy in a red suit. He probably doesn’t look like anyone she knows and he seems kind of scary and – wait! – now mommy is walking away. Where is she going? Danger, danger!
I think it’s important that we teach our children from the very beginning that we have the ability to understand and meet their needs. I believe that building trust is an essential piece of a healthy parent-child relationship. To me, this situation seems like an easy place to strengthen that trust by acknowledging your child’s feelings and not forcing them to sit on Santa’s lap if they aren’t comfortable with that. Still really want a Santa pic? How about holding baby beside Santa? How else could you preserve the trust in your relationship and still get those cherished memories? Besides, there are going to be plenty of times when your child is going to feel scared and is going to have to do something anyways (doctor visits, anyone?) and you can support them through those experiences. But sitting on Santa’s lap? Just not one of those times.
Also, if sitting on Santa’s lap is totally your baby’s thing, by all means, go for it! I am totally pro-Santa pics when the child in question actually wants to sit on Santa’s lap!